THE MODERNIZATION OF China’s armed services into a professional fighting force commensurate with the needs of the country’s growing global presence is starting to reach the sharp end. A two-day policy meeting on PLA reform, presided over by the chairman of the Central Military Commission (CMC), President Xi Jinping, has just wrapped up in Beijing. The photograph above shows Xi and his top brass at the event.
The meeting ratified:
- the PLA and the Chinese People’s Armed Police being put under the administration of the Central Military Commission, the twin state-Party agency through which the Party controls the armed forces, a move that further strengthens and integrates the Party’s control of the military and security apparatus;
- amalgamation of the country’s seven military regions into five, which will be refocused as combat commands;
- and advancement of the concept of the PLA as a true multi-service force as opposed to an army with planes and ships by giving the PLA Navy (PLA-N), the PLA Air Force (PLAAF) and the Second Artillery Corps, which controls nuclear and conventional ballistic weapons, more autonomy over their procurement and strength expansion.
While much of this was presaged in the five-year-plan for the military drawn up in 2011, this most recent meeting suggests that the army, which has been fighting a rearguard against the changes, has largely concluded that further resistance is futile. This is partly because of the irrefutable military rationale that modern China needs more air and naval power and fewer ground forces, but also because Xi’s anti-corruption drives have successfully removed more than 200 of the greenish-brown-uniformed gainsayers.
However, the tightening of Party control over the armed forces, in itself another aspect of Xi’s centralization of power, and state media reports of the continuing need ‘to solve the problem of weak discipline enforcement and inspection and to ‘eradicate the soil of corruption with stricter rules and systems’, suggests that the pressure will be kept up. Corrupt, poorly trained and equipped ground forces is the PLA’s Achilles heel.
While the PLA ’s old commercial empire was dismantled some years back, China growing industrial-military complex offers new temptations. A ‘revolution in the management’ of the military will take care of some of that, as will cutting 300,000 administrative and non-combatant personnel from the army’s numbers as previously advertised — though the timeline is unclear and the cuts will still leave the PLA as around a 2 million-strong force including 1 million ground forces.
The aircraft carriers, advanced submarines, stealth fighters and ballistic missiles bear ample testimony to the naval and air services’ ascendancy. However, the PLA’s command structure, including its communications and logistics, does not yet fully reflect that though the communications infrastructure is making rapid advances.
A unified joint military command is also needed for the tighter integration between the PLA and internal security forces, even more important now that Beijing has now declared its ‘war on terror’ albeit mostly starting at home.
The 2011 five-year plan spoke of developing leaner, more technologically sophisticated armed forces with a joint command structure capable of “winning local wars under conditions of high technology and informatisation”. That is now being put in place, even if China is still — at least for now — only capable of winning skirmishes rather than wars in the Pacific, cyberspace and real space.